If you were asked to name the early astronauts, you probably wouldn’t have much trouble; Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn come to mind easily enough. But what if you had to name women astronauts, besides Sally Ride? It’s a question that even space nerds might have trouble answering.
A new book from space reporter Loren Grush centers those women’s stories. The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts goes deep into the histories, triumphs, and tragedies of Sally Ride, Judy Resnik, Rhea Saddon, Kathy Sullivan, Shannon Lucid, and Anna Fisher. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration excluded women from its astronauts in the 1960s and ‘70s. The agency changed course in 1978, when it selected these six women from a candidate pool of 8,000.
Ira sits down with Loren Grush, space reporter for Bloomberg News, to talk about why NASA delayed their inclusion, the agency politics the women had to navigate, the pressure they faced from the media, and how they made their mark on the space program.
Loren Grush is a space reporter at Bloomberg News. She’s based in Austin, Texas.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
If you were asked to name some of the first American astronauts, you probably wouldn’t have much trouble. Alan Shepard, John Glenn come to mind pretty easily. But could you name the first women astronauts– how about besides Sally Ride– could you? It’s a question that even space nerds might have trouble answering.
Well, a new book from space reporter Loren Grush centers those women’s stories. The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts goes deep into the histories, triumphs, and tragedies of not only Sally Ride, but Judy Resnik, Rhea Seddon, Kathy Sullivan, Shannon Lucid, and Anna Fisher. NASA excluded women from its astronauts in the ’60s and ’70s. And the agency changed course, of course, in 1978, when it selected these six women from a candidate pool of 8,000– yes.
We’ll be taking your calls this hour. Do you have questions about the first six women American astronauts? Do you have any memories you have from this time? Let us know. Our number is (844) 724-8255. It’s (844) 724-8255. And you can also message us on Facebook, Threads, and Twitter.
And joining me to talk more about this history is Loren Grush herself. She’s a space reporter at Bloomberg News, joining us from KUT, in Austin, Texas. Welcome to Science Friday.
LOREN GRUSH: Thanks so much for having me. Happy to be here.
IRA FLATOW: It is so nice to have you. I’d like to start this interview with how you start the book. Set the scene for us, if you might.
LOREN GRUSH: Absolutely. So the beginning of the book takes place the night before Sally Ride’s history-making flight. But it starts not with Sally, but with Anna Fisher, who was a Caped Crusader for that flight. She was an astronaut support personnel. They called themselves the Cape Crusaders– a nice little pun, referring to Cape Canaveral, where they launched from.
And at the time, she was in charge of overseeing– watching the switches in the cockpit for the shuttle that Sally was going to fly on. And at the time, she was about eight months pregnant when she did that.
IRA FLATOW: Really?
LOREN GRUSH: Yeah. I thought it was a beautiful scene to start the book because it was a sight that had never been seen before– a pregnant astronaut in the cockpit of a spacecraft, overseeing the switches for the first American woman to go to space. I thought it was very poetic.
IRA FLATOW: It is cool. (844) 724-8255. You can also tweet us @SciFri.
How did the men react to seeing her in the cockpit?
LOREN GRUSH: Well, she was alone in the cockpit at the time. So I think it was just her and her daughter Kristen, who actually grew up to be a space reporter as well. So it was a lonely scene, but a beautiful one.
IRA FLATOW: Yes. Well, take us back to those days of yesteryear, to the early ’60s, when NASA was first building its astronaut program. Besides the culture at that time, why did NASA exclude astronauts– for what– for almost 20 years?
LOREN GRUSH: Yeah. So originally when they were setting the criteria for who could be astronauts, NASA made a very important resume point that you had to have, which was jet piloting experience. And at the time, that effectively banned women from being able to be chosen as astronauts because women were barred from flying jets for the Air Force. And that was the only way you could get jet flying experience. And so that really limited the candidate pool to men.
And I do tell a story about a famous group of women that is known as the Mercury 13– not the best name for them, but it mirrors the Mercury Seven, the first seven astronauts who were chosen at NASA. And they were also accomplished pilots at the time, and they trained for space.
In fact, they went through the same tests– medical tests and training– that the Mercury Seven had to go through in order to be selected and they passed. And they wanted to keep training for space, but ultimately they didn’t have explicit permission to use the facilities to train, and so their training was cut short.
And ultimately, they lobbied Congress in order to convince lawmakers and NASA officials that allowing women to train for space was important and that sending a woman to the moon– or a woman to space and on to the moon– was important. But ultimately, they just weren’t taken seriously at the time. You know, in the ’60s, we were locked in a very heated space race with the Soviet Union.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
LOREN GRUSH: And so including women was perceived as a bit of a distraction and not really a priority. It was going to distract from achieving that ultimate goal.
IRA FLATOW: So how did Sally Ride break through all of this?
LOREN GRUSH: Well, between the Apollo program and when the first women were selected, the country went through very transformative periods. We had the Civil Rights movement, the feminism movement. And so NASA was getting questions externally about why women and people of color were not chosen for the astronaut program at that time and also internally.
I profile a woman by the name of Ruth Bates Harris, who took a look at the state of diversity and inclusion of NASA at the time, and she came up with a pretty scathing report about how women and people of color were employed at the agency. There’s a great line about NASA has sent three women into space. Two of them are spiders, one of them a monkey. And so it was getting to be something that NASA just could not ignore anymore.
And so when the selection committee was put together to get new astronauts for the new space shuttle program that NASA was developing, they explicitly put bringing in people of color and women top of mind during that selection round.
IRA FLATOW: Did Sally have to go through any special tests that the men did not have to?
LOREN GRUSH: No. They all went through the same tests. So any of the finalist candidates from that 8,000 pool of applicants that you mentioned had to come down to Houston and go through medical evaluations. They had to go through a psychological evaluation and do an hour-and-a-half-long interview with the selection committee. And that was all the same for everybody.
And the same goes for training. All of the women went through the same types of training. They had to stay current in NASA’s fleet of T-38 jets. They had to undergo classroom work, water survival training, land survival training. They flew on the Vomit Comet, that parabolic flight that gives you brief moments of weightlessness here on Earth.
IRA FLATOW: The Vomit Comet.
LOREN GRUSH: Yes, the Vomit Comet. Yeah, that is its nickname. I think you can guess why.
So yes, it was the same training for everyone. And also, Sally went through the same training that the other five women did. All six of the women had the same expectations placed upon them. They each had different jobs, different technical assignments when they were in the agency, but yes, it was the same for the men and the women.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we’ll talk about Judy Resnik in a bit, but can you tell us about some of the other women in this class and how they got to NASA?
LOREN GRUSH: Sure. So the thing I love about the six women is that they all have very unique and different backgrounds. So Sally Ride was an astrophysicist and tennis player; Judy Resnik, an electrical engineer; Rhea and Anna were both medical doctors; and Kathy Sullivan, an oceanographer and geologist; and Shannon Lucid, a chemist. And some of them dreamed of going to space their whole lives.
Shannon was obsessed with Robert Goddard and read science fiction. And whenever the Mercury Seven were announced, she sent a letter to a magazine to see if women would be included as astronauts one day.
But some of the other women didn’t dream about being an astronaut. They just happened to find themselves in the right place at the right time with the right credentials. And so it really just goes to show that there wasn’t one true path to space for any of these women. They all found their way in some unique way to get to the space program.
IRA FLATOW: Our number, (844) 724-8255. You can also tweet us @SciFri.
Let’s go to the phones, to Linda, in St. Louis. Hi, Linda.
IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.
LINDA: Oh, hello. Yeah, I wanted to remember Judy Resnik and Christa McAuliffe. They were on the same flight that went down. Was it the o-rings and the explosion?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, the Challenger, right?
LINDA: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. That was very dramatic. I believe Reagan was president then. And yeah, I’ve seen a memorial to them in the D.C. area.
LOREN GRUSH: Yeah. And it’s definitely a big moment in the book as well. I think, unfortunately, most people remember Judy for being in the Challenger accident, but I hoped with this book to give her a little more backstory. She really did have a really interesting first flight when she was the second American woman to fly. And so I actually enjoyed writing about Judy the most just because there is so little about her and she was such a fascinating person and unfortunately her life was cut short.
IRA FLATOW: You write about a scary abort sequence that she had during testing.
LOREN GRUSH: Yeah. And that’s one of the moments in the book I really enjoyed writing about the most because that was one that people vividly remember who were in the cockpit and the cabin at the time. So before Judy flew, her first attempt– her first major attempt– had the first pad abort. So the engines briefly tried to ignite and then quickly cut off. And that had never happened in the shuttle program up until that point. And it was a very scary moment for everybody involved.
And so when I did speak to people who were in the cabin– the astronauts that were on board with Judy during that moment– they all vividly remember it. And that’s not always the case when it comes to writing books like this. Some people have memories that don’t match up. But that one was very vivid and they remembered it very clearly.
IRA FLATOW: I remember when the book We Seven came out about the original seven male Mercury astronauts. And they all had the same background. They had either a military or some kind of military flying experience. But the women did not, did they?
LOREN GRUSH: No. I mean, some of them did have some piloting experience when they came in just because they wanted to fly, but that wasn’t necessary. And that was made possible because of this new role that NASA had created at the time that allowed these women to come on board, called the mission specialist.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
LOREN GRUSH: So when the shuttle was created, it was much more spacious. There was going to be a lot more activities that astronauts needed to do when they were on board. And so that’s why NASA created this mission specialist role that didn’t require that jet piloting experience, didn’t require piloting experience. You had to have a STEM degree in a relevant field. And so that meant that engineers, doctors, researchers, scientists could come on board. And that’s really where these women excelled was in those fields.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And as you were researching this book and interviewing subjects, what were some of the biggest misconceptions about this time period that you came across, especially about the early women astronauts?
LOREN GRUSH: Sure. So I think maybe I went in thinking that the women were going to have a really difficult time at NASA because it was such a macho ethos that they were coming into. But the women were actually quite complimentary of how they were treated at NASA, their colleagues, and their male colleagues.
In fact, they spent most of their time with their male astronaut colleagues just because they had to stay current in their T-38 jets. And so that meant a lot of flying time with the pilots. They couldn’t fly the jets themselves in the front seat. They had to fly in the back seat.
So they spent a lot of time with their male colleagues, and they were very complimentary of them. It was really the press that turned out to be the biggest–
IRA FLATOW: Really?
LOREN GRUSH: –I would say adversary for the women. Yes. Just because they were under so much scrutiny at the time. They were extremely popular so the press really only wanted to talk to the women. And when they did speak to the women, the types of questions that they asked him were just– you and I would laugh at them today– at one point, Sally Ride was asked if she had ever dreamed of being born a boy.
IRA FLATOW: Gee whiz.
LOREN GRUSH: Yeah. Sally was famously asked if she wept in the simulator when some glitch happened.
IRA FLATOW: Did they ask about recipes they were going to do up in space– that kind of thing?
LOREN GRUSH: No. But it got up to that point. And then you had Johnny Carson at the same time was still making pretty sexist jokes. There was one about how Sally’s flight was delayed because she couldn’t find the matching shoes for her purse. Just terrible jokes that would never fly today. And so it just goes to show that, even though NASA was on board with making space for women at the time, the country still had a bit of catching up to do.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios. Talking with Loren Grush, space reporter for Bloomberg News, and talking about her new book.
Tell us tell us what got you interested in writing the book to begin with.
LOREN GRUSH: Yeah, absolutely. So as you mentioned, I’m a space reporter for Bloomberg. Prior to that, I was the senior space reporter for The Verge. And I’ve been reporting on space for about a decade now. And even before then– I like to say I have space in my blood– both my parents were engineers on the space shuttle program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. So I grew up outside of Houston.
I had a roundabout way of getting into space journalism. As a teenager, I didn’t find space to be that cool just because, when your parents do something, it’s not necessarily what you want to do, either.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
LOREN GRUSH: But when I chose the route of journalism, I found myself being drawn back into space and stories of innovation. And I thought, I wonder if I can find somebody to pay me to write about space full time. And I somehow managed to do it by some small miracle, and I’ve been writing about it ever since.
And one of the things that’s really important to me as a space journalist is centering women’s stories in space. So as a woman in this industry, I sometimes feel very outnumbered. It’s a very male-dominated industry still, both the space industry and space journalism in general. But more and more women have been coming into the field, which has been great for me because I really gravitate towards them. We have a very shared camaraderie. We’re very close. And I love creating those bonds with other women in space journalism.
And so it just became really important to me to talk about women in the industry and made me start thinking about the women who came first. So I was thinking, who were the first female space journalists? And then that got me thinking of, who were the first women in space, in general? And so that brought me to this group. And I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t know much about them, either.
I knew Sally Ride’s name, but I really didn’t know much about her story and her history. And the fact that I didn’t know much about the other five women at all made me think, oh, I think this is a great opportunity to educate myself and also give them a more elevated platform.
IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a quick call in. Drew, in Dayton, before we go to the break. Hi, Drew.
IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.
DREW: Oh, my daughter is eight. And a couple of years ago she came across a YouTube video by Emily Calandrelli, who is a space journalist as well. And it just opened up this door to this world of space that a lot of girls her age wouldn’t have had in the past. So just the availability today of YouTube and TikTok and the number of female space journalists is growing because they have a platform that doesn’t have any doors on them or isn’t controlled by NASA or anything like that.
I just think it’s something that has really equalized the playing field is that availability of the internet for young girls to see women in space, not only the historical ideas, but of course now a lot of women that are doing space journalism is getting her really involved in space and wanting to be an astronaut.
LOREN GRUSH: That’s fantastic. And yeah, I completely agree. Having the internet at our disposal has really helped spread our word and our work and gives us a lot of different outlets for being able to report about space. I know Emily very well. She’s fantastic. And I also love doing video stories. I think it’s just a great way to change the way you tell a story. And it really brings in more people who might not have known about space than ever before.
IRA FLATOW: Talking with Loren Grush, author of The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts. Our number, (844) 724-8255. Join us on the other side of the break. We’d love to take your questions. Stay with us.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking with space reporter Loren Grush, author of a new book about women’s stories, the first six women astronauts. It is called The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts. It’s really, really an interesting read, and lots of people have questions and comments to make.
Let’s go to the phones. Yeah, let’s go to John, in Cleveland. Hi, John.
JOHN: Hi, Ira. How are you doing?
IRA FLATOW: Fine.
JOHN: Well, I love the show. And I’m a certified astronaut fan. I was nine years old when we landed on the moon. So it’s burned into my DNA. And my question is with regard to the first female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, do we know what her background was prior to selection?
LOREN GRUSH: Yes, she was a parachutist, I believe. So she did have some kind of, I guess, aircraft training, but not a full pilot.
JOHN: OK. I was just curious. And my second question, it’s on a different subject of the first Black astronaut. Why do you never hear the name of Robert Lawrence? and during the ’60s, he was a candidate.
LOREN GRUSH: I’m not sure I know that story that well either, unfortunately. But maybe it just goes to show we do need to have more background about him.
IRA FLATOW: There you go. Yeah, there’s so much to be unearthed. We learned about the women who were responsible for doing the mathematics, right? And we never heard about them before.
LOREN GRUSH: Right, absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: And now we’re hearing about the first women astronauts.
Let’s go to Justin, in Branson, Missouri. Hi, Justin. Welcome to Science Friday.
JUSTIN: Hello. My question was just how pivotal of a role did Nichelle Nichols play in recruiting women back in the ’70s?
IRA FLATOW: You mean from Star Trek?
LOREN GRUSH: No, that’s actually a great story. So Nichelle Nichols was recruited by NASA to record basically a PSA for the recruitment back in 1977. And she donned an astronaut jumpsuit and she came to JSC and did various interviews and worked with some of the controls and the equipment there and she filmed a PSA. And at the time, basically she said, I’m going to bring you so many women and people of color that you’ll have to pick one of them.
So she was actually quite pivotal in that experience.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we hear so much about Sally Ride. What about the other women astronauts? We haven’t heard very much about what their fates were as they got older and matured?
LOREN GRUSH: Absolutely. Well, we know Judy Resnik. She was the second American woman to fly, the first Jewish American in space, and also tragically lost her life on the Challenger accident. Following her was Kathy Sullivan. She is the first American woman to perform a spacewalk. And Kathy is still breaking records to this day.
IRA FLATOW: Really?
LOREN GRUSH: In 2020, she famously dove to Challenger Deep. So she’s the only person to have walked in space and dove to the deepest part of the ocean. So even in recent history, they’re still breaking records.
After her, Anna Fisher. She was the first mother in space– an emergency room doctor by training. And then Rhea Seddon, also a surgeon. And I loved writing about her flight. She would go on to fly a few more missions after her first flight. And she really focused on life sciences when she flew, doing those kinds of experiments.
And then Shannon Lucid was the last of the group to fly. But she’d actually go on to fly more time in space than the rest of them combined. She’s famously known for her extended stay on the Mir Space Station. And at the time, I believe she was the woman with the most flying time in space. She held that record for quite some time.
IRA FLATOW: Very interesting. Let’s go to Heidi, in Florida. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday. Heidi, go ahead.
HEIDI: Oh, hi. Am I actually on the air?
IRA FLATOW: You are.
HEIDI: Oh, wow.
IRA FLATOW: So the clock is ticking.
HEIDI: OK. So I just wanted to make sure to clarify one thing that I’ve heard. I am all for equality and fairness and everything. I just want to make sure that people know that women were allowed to fly jets back in the ’80s. My husband and I have both worked for the Air Force since the 1980s, and my husband is a pilot. And I was in JROTC in high school. And they took us on a field trip. And the plane that we saw was a tanker. And the pilot was female. And that’s a jet. So it was the fighters that they weren’t allowed to fly back in the day.
And so I just wanted to make that point of clarification in all of this.
LOREN GRUSH: Yeah, it was back in the 1960s that they weren’t able to get that experience. I believe the Air Force opened up the ability to fly jets in, I want to say, it was actually in 1978 around the time these first women were selected. And then one of the first women to pilot the space shuttle was Eileen Collins. She was able to get that jet experience and was inspired by the first six women once they came on board.
IRA FLATOW: Heidi, thanks for your call. Thanks for that note.
HEIDI: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
IRA FLATOW: You, too. Bye-bye.
Let’s see how many more calls we can get. Gary, in Cincinnati. Hi, Gary.
GARY: Hi. Hello.
IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.
GARY: Oh, hi. I was just wanting to ask Loren. One of the original of the 13, there was one named Nora Gene Stumbough Jessen. Is she familiar with her? She never did make it to the pilot– I mean on one of the shuttles– but I guess it was 1961 when they started that project for women astronaut training, which only lasted a couple of years. So I wonder if she knew anything about her or heard of her.
LOREN GRUSH: So unfortunately, I didn’t get to go as in depth on those group of women. They have a chapter in the book just because I felt like their stories were important context for these first six women. So unfortunately, I didn’t study their lives that in depth. I do name a few names. Jerrie Cobb gets a call out, Jane Hart, Wally Funk. But the rest, unfortunately, don’t get their time in this book.
However, there are plenty of books about the so-called Mercury 13– or the FLATs, sometimes they’re called. So I definitely encourage– I mean, I took a lot of reference from Margaret Weitekamp’s book. And there’s plenty of information about these women out there. So I encourage people to extend their learning by pursuing those works.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Brandon, in Webster City. Hi, Brandon.
BRANDON: Yes. Hello.
IRA FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.
BRANDON: So my question was not a history question, but like a future tense question. The first person to walk on Mars, do we think– have we made a conscious decision on if we wanted a woman to be the first person to walk on Mars, an African-American woman– or do we have a date set in mind of when that might be possible?
LOREN GRUSH: That is the ultimate question. I think we’re a little far off from Mars right now. In fact, NASA is not even focused on going to Mars at the moment. The real focus is sending people back to the moon through its Artemis program. But I feel like the Artemis program is really relevant to what we’re talking about because it has the stated goal of sending the first woman and the first person of color to the lunar surface hopefully this decade.
So that is something that is top of mind for NASA. So perhaps when it is time to send people to Mars, that will also be top of mind.
IRA FLATOW: We have a caller who says– the caller wants to note that Sally Ride was also the first LGBT astronaut.
LOREN GRUSH: Yes, absolutely. Well, at least the first known. At the time, she was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley. But after they divorced, she did start a relationship with a woman by the name of Tam O’Shaughnessy, who was very helpful in sharing her memories with me about Sally for this book. And yes, they did keep their relationship secret during Sally’s life. But when she passed, Tam essentially came out and said that she had been Sally’s partner. And yes, that made her the first known LGBTQ astronaut.
IRA FLATOW: Do you feel that these six women had a big impact on the space program?
LOREN GRUSH: Absolutely. I mean, if anything, they had it a little more difficult than the women who came after them. So they had to deal with those awful press questions that I was telling you about. They had to deal with the first women’s issues in terms of, how do you go to the bathroom in space when you’re a woman and what facilities do you need? So they had to work out those kinks at the beginning.
And also, they didn’t have mentors or other women mentors like them. They did have a quote, unquote mother hen in the form of Carolyn Huntoon, who was a NASA official at the time, who gave them guidance and helped them whenever they needed any kind of help as a group. But they didn’t really have other women astronauts they could turn to for help and guidance.
But, ultimately, they opened that door for all the women who came after them. So the future female astronauts, if they needed help or questions from a female mentor, they had that. And that’s ultimately what pioneers do, right?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
LOREN GRUSH: They have it hard at first so that the others that come after them have it easier.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think there’s still some untold stories?
LOREN GRUSH: Oh, absolutely. I think not even just among the first women astronauts, but the women behind the scenes in the space program. There were plenty who don’t get that kind of fame and acknowledgment, but they are instrumental in keeping the space shuttle flying or these spacecraft flying. So I think there’s plenty of opportunity to tell stories of women within the space program, who were the engineers and the trainers as well.
IRA FLATOW: A quick few seconds I have. Anything that most surprised you about your research?
LOREN GRUSH: Most surprised me– I would say pleasantly surprised– it was learning about each of their differing personalities. I think when I started writing this book, I had this perception that they were this united cohort and that they were all very similar and they were locked arm in arm, standing against the oppression and the men at the time.
And obviously, that wasn’t the case. They were women just like all of us. They were closer– and some were closer than others– but they were a very diverse group.
IRA FLATOW: It’s a great book. Thank you, Loren Grush, for taking time to be with us today.
LOREN GRUSH: Thanks so much for having me.
IRA FLATOW: The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts.